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Medical marijuana bill's major sponsors lose races

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The May 4 Democratic primary ended State Rep. Nick Mackey's immediate future in Raleigh as he lost to challenger Rodney Moore. But before the short session at the state capital ends, Mackey is working to get House Bill 1380 — which would make marijuana legal for people with chronic illnesses like glaucoma, cancer and ALS — passed. If passed, the bill would let manufacturers grow marijuana, allow caregivers over the age of 21 to assist patients with the use of medical marijuana and reportedly generate $60 million in taxes for the cash-strapped state.

Mackey has long contended that the bill -- which he is a main sponsor of, along with Earl Jones and Pricey Harrison (both of Guilford County) -- is more about compassion than politics. "People are suffering," he said to Creative Loafing in March. "Just imagine being on chemotherapy and the chemo and the other medicines that you're having to take are making you nauseated all the time and you can't eat. So, now you're starving away. That's a known side effect of cancer treatment. But now you smoke the marijuana, and now you can eat."

Unfortunately for Mackey and other supporters of medical marijuana, House Bill 1380 is moving slowly through the House and may never even reach the Senate for a vote. Right now, the bill is before the health committee where, according to the N.C. General Assembly's website, it's been sitting since April 2009.

As if Mackey's loss wasn't bad enough for the bill, Jones also lost his primary this month. Though it won't affect the progress of the bill in the short session of the General Assembly, the future of the legalization of medical marijuana in the Tar Heel state may just go up in smoke.

Two months ago, it seemed as if 1380 was getting serious consideration and public attention. Mackey held a town hall meeting at UNC-Charlotte to discuss the nuances of the proposed legislation. And supporters of the bill had been rallying in the state capital and lobbying lawmakers. Jean Marlowe, executive director of The North Carolina Cannabis Patients Network -- a group that provides education on medical marijuana -- told CL in March that it is hard and dangerous for someone in a wheelchair or dependent on a walker to get the pain relief they need from marijuana because the drug is illegal. Media outlets from across the state were giving it top billing on newscasts, and in newspapers it was front-page headlines. Now, not so much.

Rep. Pricey Harrison said the bill has no traction or a chance of becoming law during the short session. In an e-mail, she said: "There is too much resistance in this conservative state and not enough support to counter the resistance. There seem to be about two dozen activists who write on it regularly, but it lacks the critical mass of support to generate momentum."

Mackey, however, isn't willing to let the bill die in committee, even though his term as a representative ends at the end of the 2010 session.

"I wouldn't have introduced it if I didn't support it wholeheartedly," he said. "We're hopeful, but I can't gauge what the committee's priority is. I haven't heard any talk about it being scheduled for a hearing."

If the bill becomes law, North Carolina would be the 11th state in the nation to legalize marijuana for medical purposes. But if Mackey doesn't get it passed through the House and the Senate, there's no guarantee that his district replacement will push as strongly.

Moore, the Democratic candidate who defeated Mackey in the primary, said 1380 won't be a huge priority to him if he wins. "I've looked at that bill and I won't be pursuing it," he said. "I will say this: When it comes to alleviating pain from cancer patients and chronically ill patients, we really need to come up with some ways to do that."

Moore admits that he hasn't paid close attention to the bill to know if passing it would be the answer to those problems. "Clearly, it wouldn't be one of my legislative priorities," he said.

Republican Michael T. Wilson, whom Moore will face in the race for the district 99 seat in November, didn't return calls to CL by press time. But as far as Harrison is concerned, the move to legalize medical marijuana in North Carolina has reached an impasse. "The issue did lose its biggest champion in Earl Jones," she said, "and I don't know who will champion the issue in the coming years."

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